University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Healer Cults and Sanctuaries

Asclepius and Votive Offerings

Relief Plaque from Epidauros

Votive relief from Asklepieion of Piraeus, 4th century BCE. Archaeological Museum, Piraeus, Greece.

Hippocratic principles were directly opposed to magic and ritual. However, the continuing success of the cult of Asclepius throughout antiquity clearly shows that medicine was never fully divorced from religion. Beginning in the sixth century BCE, health resorts, or sanctuaries, known as Asklepia (because they were presided over by Asclepius, the god of healing) sprang up all over the Mediterranean. The cult of Asclepius was simultaneously a religion and a system of therapeutics. In the panel to the left, a temple physician massages a patient’s shoulder while a priestess, serving as a nurse, looks on.


Ex-voto tablet from Epdauros

Ex-voto tablet from Epidauros, 3rd Century BCE, National Archaeological  Museum, Athens. Note the large vein on the leg.

Although medical treatment was free at Asklepia, a recovered patient was expected to make a votive offering, which sometimes took the form of a replica of the afflicted organ or limb. A patient is shown dedicating a large votive leg to Asclepius in thanks for curing his varicose veins. In these Asklepia, special rites were observed. After purification baths, fasting, and sacrifices, the patient would spend the night in the god’s temple, a process called enkoimesis, incubatio (“sleeping in”). During the night Asclepius would appear to the sleeping patient in a dream and give him advice. In the morning priests would interpret the dream and explain the god’s precepts. Patients thanked Asclepius by tossing gold into the sacred fountain and by hanging ex-votos on the walls of the temple.


Silver tetradrachm

Silver tetradrachm, Epidauros, 350-330 BCE.

This coin was minted at Epidauros, the site of the great healing sanctuary of Asclepius. The god became a symbol of the city. He is shown on the reverse of the coin accompanied by a serpent. The letter E to the right of the figure is short for Epidauros.




The Healing of Archinus

The Healing of Archinus, ex-voto tablet, c. 370 BCE, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

This famous dedication was made by Archinus at the healing shrine of Amphiaraus at Oropus, on the borders of Boeotia and Attica. The cult at Oropus was one of incubation, and on the right, we see the patient asleep on a couch. In the left foreground, Amphiaraus, like a human doctor, is treating the patient’s right shoulder: this scene represents the supposed content of Archinus’s dream. But, in the same scene, a sacred snake, a healing animal, is shown licking or biting the same right shoulder of the sleeping patient: this is the cure as it would supposedly have appeared to a waking observer. Behind, on a pillar, a votive stele commemorates the god’s act of healing. The figure on the right might perhaps be yet a third representation of Archinus, in this case, gratefully dedicating his stele.

There are hundreds of extant inscriptions and votive reliefs recounting the individual cures of patients at the Asklepia. The following examples were found at the ruins of the Asklepion in Epidauros:

foot votive terra cotta

Votive terra cotta offerings from Cerveteri, Etruria, now in Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, 3rd century. Foot.

hand votive terra cotta

Votive terra cotta offerings from Cerveteri, Etruria, now in Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, 3rd century. Hand.

esophagus votive terra cotta

Votive terra cotta offerings from Cerveteri, Etruria, now in Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, 3rd century. Digestive organs.









The hand (left) and foot (right) in this collection of votive terra cottas are both painted red. Therefore, they represent the limbs of a male; in ancient Mediterranean art, the flesh of men was painted red and the flesh of women, white or pink. The sculpture was made in a mold that had been reused a number of times; consequently, sculptured details like the fingernails are only faintly visible. The esophagus, stomach, intestine, and kidneys are visible in this curious representation of the digestive organs. It was offered as a gift to a divinity either in gratitude or as a plea for healing.

The cult of Asclepius also existed in Rome after 291 BCE. No trace of the sanctuary of Asclepius in Rome exists, but the cult was immensely popular as evidenced by the number of terra cottas. These offerings depicted parts of the human body, often at greater than life size, and were dedicated by the afflicted at healing sanctuaries. More than 100 sanctuaries in Italy are known, the majority in western-central Italy, and it is clear that the inspiration for these temples stemmed ultimately from the temple in Rome itself.

Other cult centers sprang up across Italy. Study of the terra cottas from these precincts reveals the emergence of some specialized centers in healing. At Ponte di Nona, e.g., a rural complex some 15 kilometers to the east of Rome, the collections are dominated by feet and hands– precisely the parts of the body which are likely to suffer damage in the course of agricultural work. In the town of Veii, on the other hand, the terra cottas from the Campetti sanctuary contain a huge proportion of male and female sexual organs. If not associated with some form of fertility cult, these may well hint at a high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, of a sort that might well be picked up in an urban brothel.